Paula Abdul's Live to Dance brings the nice to reality TV
For nearly a decade, the formula on reality TV talent shows has been unshakable; mix really talented competitors with the embarrassingly awful, using a ruthless judge -- preferably British -- to humiliate the fumblers.
But former American Idol judge Paula Abdul turned that equation upside down Tuesday on her new competition for CBS, Live to Dance, offering an upbeat, two-hour premiere Tuesday which spent little time dwelling on those who couldn't make the initial cut.
Instead, Abdul's production lingered on the standouts, kicking off with a jaw-dropping performance by a 9-year-old breakdancer that brought the house down. "Do you know that you make people happy?" a giddy Abdul gushed at him after his audition concluded. All the kid could do was shrug and smile wider, basking in the glow of a relentlessly positive competition.
CBS pulled out serious production resources for the show, building white "dance domes" in Los Angeles and New York City packed with an energetic crowd and enough glitzy staging to choke the Cirque du Soliel. The judging process was inverted, with Abdul and her sidekick evaluators (ex-Pussycat Doll Kimberly Wyatt and Michael Jackson choreographer Travis Payne) voting immediately after a dance was completed, and then commenting on the performance. Two gold stars or more moved dancers forward, two red stars or more knocked them out.
For her part, Abdul toned down the loopy eccentricities that made her an oddball icon on Idol, instead offering a stream of gooey platitudes for every contestant -- even assuring the hoofers who got cut that they were talented and special, but just didn't show it well enough in their audition. (She did give us a flash of Crazy Paula while explaining her judging criteria: "I'm looking for dancers who operate in their unique ability." Ummm, what?)
But savvy viewers know, audition shows are always heavily edited and more sedate. I'm hopeful the upcoming live episodes will bring back the Paula we love; crying at the oddest moments and hitting on all the young male contestants with the free spirit of a truly clueless celebrity.
With no age or numbers limit for dancers, the contestants ranged from young children to 80-somethings, single dancers and massive troupes, with many of them coming off like experienced street performers translating their shtick for a national audience. Perky Aussie host Andrew Gunderson -- kind of a Down Under version of Ryan Seacrest as a co-host of Australia's Idol competition -- kept the proceedings moving quickly, joking with contestants and nervous parents as auditions unfolded.
With Live to Dance, CBS has aimed a cheery, gooey affirmation of a competition right at rival Fox, nabbing a star from Idol to top a dance competition seriously "inspired" by So You Think You Can Dance.
It's been a while since I've seen a TV network bet on a lack of cynicism and taste for humiliation from viewers. We'll know soon whether their faith in the audience -- and star Abdul's positive appeal -- will actually pay off.